The Theory of Taste: A Comparative Analysis of David Hume and Immanuel Kant

As long as culture, media, and art has existed, so too has the everlasting conundrum of taste. That is to say: how can we resolve competing opinions on aesthetic standards? In the following essay, I will look at how David Hume and Immanuel Kant approach this problem. After comparing the two, I will conclude with my own thoughts.

Hume’s essay, Of the Standard of Taste, begins by looking at a common problem in taste. Consider two people holding similar background, education, and environmental upbringing being asked to assess something on its aesthetic merit. Even within such a similar frame of reference between two peers, one still could easily expect there to be significant disagreement. This raises a thorn in the side of objectivity. It seems that, even after careful consideration for what makes something beautiful, at the end of the day aesthetic remarks (taste) simply refer to one’s sentiment. This is in stark contrast with what we consider to be judgement, where only one position can possibly be right. Instead, it must be the case, Hume argues, that “all sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself.”[1] He further points out that when we talk about beauty, we can only be referring to how some object interacts with our faculties of the mind and our sensory perceptions. To seek after some “true beauty” is a dead end. There can be no true beauty if taste is simply a matter of sentiment. If one were to argue that The Odyssey is the greatest work of art of all time, this is merely an indication of how your faculties perceive the world, and not an objective judgement on aesthetic truth.

Nonetheless, Hume thinks we can still seek out better standards of sentiment, even if no one sentiment can be declared as the only true standard. Hume asks us to consider how our organs interact with external senses. He argues that when making an assessment on a food’s taste or an object’s color, no reasonable person would authoritatively make such an assessment if their organs were defective. This means that in order to make the most accurate sentiment possible, our organs need to be in a sound state. The conclusion here is that while one can’t necessarily say that “yellow is a pleasing color,” it is at least a requisite that this person making the assessment be of sound mind. Applying this to the dilemma at hand, it follows that we must be able to locate some standard of taste and beauty within the subject themselves.

After much deliberation, Hume finds this standard and outlines what a “true judge” would look like. First, a true judge must have strong sense, meaning that the judge’s internal organs must have minimal imperfections. Second, the senses must be in harmony to create delicate sentiment. Hume uses the example of wine tasting to elucidate this: those able to notice the minutia of a glass of wine are better fit to evaluate it, and therefore have a delicacy of taste. Third, a true judge must have substantial practice, meaning that they frequently reapply their senses and sentiment. Fourth, their taste must be perfected by comparison. Without comparing various objects of beauty, no judge can be true, for any kind of praise or blame in this world is associated with its proportions to others. Additionally, comparative analysis is what allows us to assign degrees of perfection to something. Lastly, Hume states that a true judge must free itself from all prejudice, for no one could reasonably assert a standard if their faculties were unfairly influenced. This solves a lot of the problems that the standard of taste had, namely that we started with total subjectivism and ended up with something less subjective and more criteria-based, but it still doesn’t achieve pure objectivity.

Immanuel Kant takes a different approach in his Analytic of the Beautiful, the first book of the Critique of Judgment. Kant splits up his reasoning into four moments. In his first moment, Of the Judgment of Taste According to Quality, Kant emphasizes that when determining the beauty of the object, we refer to the representation by the imagination our faculties produce. This production in turn either generates feelings of pleasure or pain. Because the determination is entirely rooted in the imagination, judgment of taste is therefore not held in logical grounds, and must be, as Kant puts it, “no other than subjective.”[2] He also points out that having “interest” in an object requires the satisfaction of the representation of the existence of an object. However, if one is to consider the beauty of something, one needn’t depend on its existence, or the representation of its existence; in other words, “the satisfaction which determines the judgment of taste is disinterested.”[3] Kant illustrates this with an example of being alone on an island. So long as Kant has ample shelter, he doesn’t require the existence of a more beautiful building, like the Iroquois Sachem. This example provides reason to think that beauty isn’t concerned with the existence of the object, but instead just what the subject makes out of the object in their imagination. To Kant, interest is not a requisite for taste.

Kant argues that “all satisfaction is itself sensation (of a pleasure).”[4] This mostly generates some truisms to consider for aesthetic judgment: everything that pleases is pleasant, and everything that doesn’t please isn’t pleasant. However, it also brings up the consideration that the pleasant has more of an a priori recognition than most other endeavors of the mind. Kant considers the fact that flowers and other foliage that provide pleasure do so before any kind of reasoning is required. This indicates, as Kant concludes, that beauty comes from an object, and taste comes from the faculty of the judge. In the second moment, Kant finds that there must be some common sense inherent in our aesthetic viewings of objects.  Going back to the flower example, if one is to say a rose is beautiful, they are not just making that judgment for themselves but also for everyone else, implying that beauty is a property of the object according to the subject. He further follows that making a judgment is not one of logic or cognition, but a singular judgment of taste that “does not unite the predicate of beauty with the concept of the object.”[5] Beauty itself as a property is not one that is judged by its concepts, but rather simply by its pleasure or satisfaction in the subject.

Kant’s third moment deals primarily with possessiveness in the object with relation to the subject. He argues that beauty is distinct from other things that we consider to have purpose. We generally think that the purposiveness of most concepts is the object, and that “the causality of a concept in respect of its object is its purposiveness.”[6] This is obvious in any scientific understanding, such as how gravity interacts with other objects and has causal purposiveness. In contrast, however, Kant concludes that beauty has purposive purposelessness. This means that to attempt finding some causal starting point for beauty is futile, for the very understanding of beauty necessitates that there exists no purpose outside of itself—it is merely a subjective aesthetic judgment that has no objective rule of taste. In his last moment, Kant concludes that arriving at this purposive purposelessness is just an illumination of our own common sense, our own universal thinking of beauty that reflects upon itself. It is not something that is grounded on experience, but rather on our natural faculties and their pleasure derived from the beautiful.

It’s worth mentioning that Kant backpedals a bit in the second moment, when he discusses the antinomy of taste, that two people could have disagreements on taste yet still have some universal validity to the claims. Kant’s four moments as a whole offer the solution to this conundrum, in that recognizing the beauty of something is much less a claim about the object and more so a statement of taste in one’s own faculties. This understanding, coupled with Kant’s starting point of common sense, is very different from Hume’s insistence on a found standard of taste. Kant is far less convinced of any kind of aesthetic authority, whereas Hume thinks that at the very least a true judge can be the best subjective model possible.

In my opinion, Hume’s standard of taste is a far more plausible theory. When I think of what taste means, I believe it has to incorporate some kind of rationality and some kind of reason. I reject Kant’s grounds that it lies in common sense, for this is a very diffuse and unexplainable point of reference that can still very easily be rejected (I’m sure that someone, at some point in time found roses to be ugly. There is no universal common sense for looking at a flower.) Hume still recognizes that we can’t ever know the truth of an aesthetic statement, as it is ultimately wrapped up in subjectivity, but we can still find out if our subjective assessment was a well thought out one. This makes for a more plausible standard of taste in that it attempts to incorporate our faculties of reasoning as much as possible. To suggest that beauty and pleasure is something completely independent of reason, neurologically speaking, sells our complexities short as human beings. More importantly, we can combine emotional responses to art with logical inferences about art’s inner meaning or message. This creates a more definable, understandable, and therefore more plausible theory of taste.

Kant and Hume both took incredible and unique approaches to the theory of taste. Both feel that no objective standard can ever be found, but they differ on what other kinds of standards can be made. Hume offers, in my opinion, a more well-rounded and deeper approach to a standard for taste, which is why I find it to be more plausible. Overall, however, both philosopher’s position demonstrate strength in argumentation that should be heavily considered when making aesthetic judgment.

 

[1] David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste, 80

[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 98

[3] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 98

[4] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 98

[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 105

[6] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 107

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